US-Russia Diversionary tactics over prickly issues is key - GulfToday

US-Russia Diversionary tactics over prickly issues is key

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Russian President Vladimir Putin holds his annual press conference at the Manezh exhibition hall in central Moscow.

Russian President Vladimir Putin holds his annual press conference at the Manezh exhibition hall in central Moscow. Agence France-Presse

During Thursday’s four-hour annual question-and-answer session with the world press, Russian President Vladimir Putin blamed the West for the protracted stand-off over Ukraine and said his deployment of 100,000 troops near the frontier was not threatening “anyone.” He called on the US, in particular, and the West to concede Moscow’s demand for security guarantees and a pledge that Nato will not expand into Ukraine and plant weapons there.

Biden seems intent on imposing fresh sanctions on Russia rather than engaging in a fresh military adventure. He could, however, risk blowback from both Russia and Europe, which depends on Russia’s Gazprom for nearly one-third of its natural gas at affordable prices. Furthermore, as European countries replace polluting coal-fired power plants with gas-fed facilities, Gazprom could be expected to contribute a larger percentage of fuel.

Putin responded to Biden by expressing hope that differences over Ukraine’s orientation will be resolved during talks set to open in Geneva in January. Meanwhile, he persisted with his tough line. “We have clearly and precisely let them know that any further Nato expansion eastward is unacceptable.”

Last week, Moscow stated its maximalist position by insisting that Nato refuse membership to Ukraine and other ex-Soviet bloc countries and remove arms, troops, and military facilities based there. Putin asked, “Is it us who are putting missiles near the U.S. borders? No, it’s the US who came to our home with their missiles. They are already on the threshold of our home. Is it some excessive demand not to place any offensive systems near our home?”

Russia cannot tolerate Nato on its doorstep. During World War I, Imperial Russia joined the Western allies in the 2014-18 war against monarchical Germany which could have dragged on longer and cost more lives and treasure if Russia had not intervened. When, after the war, Czar Nicholas was overthrown and civil war between “Whites” and “Reds” raged, the US, Britain and Japan invaded to bolster the “Whites.” The aim was to defeat the Communists who, ultimately, won. Nevertheless, Western powers, fearing the global spread of populist, prostlytising Communism, shunned Russia.

The history of the century-old, ill-fated intervention is taught in Russian schools and colours Russian minds, stirring the deep fear and mistrust of the West which fuelled the Cold War that followed World War II.

In that conflict Russia eventually joined the Western allies when the enemy was Nazi Germany. By that time, Russia had become a military heavyweight and its leader Joseph Stalin played a major role in the post-war carveup of Europe which left Poland, Eastern Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Romania, Bulgaria, as Albania behind the Iron Curtain. Domination of these countries and its immediate neighbours gave Russia a protective hinterland.

All these countries went their own ways with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1998-91, stripping Russia of its security zone and producing unease in the Kremlin.

As Ukraine, Moldova and Byelorussia, which are located on Russia’s frontiers, were Soviet Socialist Republics rather than satellite states and were closely integrated with Russia, Moscow is highly sensitive to current efforts by the West to recruit them into Nato.

During his press conference, Putin also touted Russia’s warm relations and trade ties with China, a previous rival. In mid-December, he and Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged cooperation and support.

Although they have not formed a security alliance, Xi has said he backs Putin’s demand for guarantees from the West precluding Nato expansion eastwards. Like Russia, China has been beset by sanctions.

The most sensitive of these embargoes have been imposed over its suppression of its restive Uighur minority based in Xinjiang province in Northwest China. The Uighur problem has afflicted the Han Chinese for millennia rather than centuries.

The Uighurs, a Turkic people, originated in north- central Mongolia and established a powerful trading kingdom in the 8th-9th centuries. In 840, the kingdom was overthrown and the Uighurs migrated to the Tarim Basin in Xinjiang. While they formed alliances with other ethnically-distinctive nomadic groups invading China, Uighurs also sided with the Han Chinese although they regarded all such peoples as “barbarians.” From the 10th to the 16th centuries the majority of Uighurs converted to Islam which, in recent years, has imbued Uighur resistance to Chinese Communist rule and prompted Uighur militants to join the fundamentalist fight against the Syrian government.

This being the case, the Chinese authorities have come to regard the Uighurs as dangerous radicals and have cracked down hard on certain Uighur communities - just as Arab governments have on al-Qaeda, its affiliates and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Threats of military action and the imposition of sanctions by Western politicians are unlikely to shift Moscow on Ukraine or Beijing on the Uighurs because of Russia’s experience with 20th century US-UK intervention and China’s millennial history of “barbarian” revolts.

Sensible politicians on all sides should be able to reach compromises which they can accept by following a policy of “no victor, no vanquished.” Unfortunately, Putin, Biden, his Western counterparts, and Xi are struggling with the pandemic, economic insecurity, and domestic issues particular to their countries.

They seem to be tempted to stir up trouble externally to divert their public from failures on the home front. That is a dangerous game for all concerned. Russia, the US, its Nato allies, and China cannot afford to stoke tension as the world remains engulfed by the fire of COVID.

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